The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Poststructuralism: The general attempt to contest and subvert structuralism and to formulate new theories regarding interpretation and meaning, associated closely with deconstruction but also with certain aspects and practitioners of psychoanalytic, Marxist, cultural, feminist, and gender criticism. Poststructuralism, which arose in the late 1960s, includes such a wide variety of perspectives that no unified poststructuralist theory has ever been articulated. Rather, poststructuralists have been distinguished from other contemporary critics by their opposition to structuralism and by certain concepts held in common.

Structuralism, briefly defined, is a theory of humankind that arose in France in the 1950s and whose proponents attempted to show systematically, even scientifically, that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as part of a system of signs. Leading figures included French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Lévi-Strauss, who studied everything from the structure of villages to the structure of myths, looked for recurring, common elements that transcended the differences within and among cultures. Saussure, who founded semiology, argued that linguistic signs are composed of two parts: the signifier (the “sound-image”) and the signified (the abstract concept represented by the signifier). He viewed sign systems in terms of binary oppositions, contrary pairs such as light / dark and strong / weak. Using Saussure’s linguistic theory as a model and employing semiotic theory in general, structuralists claimed that it was possible to analyze a text or other signifying structure systematically, even scientifically, to reveal the codes and conventions that governed the text’s production, operate in its reception, and enable the determination of meaning. Poststructuralists, by contrast, believe that signification involves an interminable and intricate web of associations that continually defers a determinate assessment of meaning. The numerous possible denotations and connotations of any word lead to contradictions and ultimately to the dissemination of meaning itself. Thus, poststructuralists contend that texts contradict not only structuralist accounts of them but also themselves.

French deconstructive theorist Jacques Derrida’s 1966 paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” inaugurated poststructuralism as a challenge to structuralism. There, Derrida rejected the structuralist presupposition that texts (or other signifying structures) have self-referential centers that govern their language (or signifying system) without being determined, governed, co-opted, or problematized by that language (or system). Having rejected the structuralist concept of a self-referential center, Derrida also rejected its corollary: that a text’s meaning is thereby rendered determinable (capable of being determined) as well as determinate (fixed and reliably correct).

Poststructuralists have suggested that structuralism rests on a number of distinctions — between signifier and signified, self and language (or text), texts and other texts, and text and world — that are overly simplistic, if not patently inaccurate, and they have made a concerted effort to discredit these oppositions. For instance, poststructuralists have viewed the self as the subject, as well as the user, of language, claiming that although we may speak through and shape language, it also shapes and speaks through us. Moreover, although poststructuralists have generally followed their structuralist predecessors in rejecting the traditional concept of the literary “work” (as the work of an individual and purposeful author) in favor of the impersonal “text,” they have gone structuralists one better by treating texts as “intertexts”: crisscrossed strands within the infinitely larger text called language, that networked system of denotation, connotation, and signification in which the individual text is inscribed and read and through which its myriad possible meanings are ascribed and assigned. (French poststructuralist psychoanalytic critic Julia Kristeva, who coined the term intertextuality, characterized the individual text as a “mosaic of quotations” [Desire in Language, 1980], an amalgam of preexisting texts whose meanings it reworks and transforms.)

Poststructuralists have even viewed the world itself as a text. This position was set forth most powerfully and controversially by Derrida in De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967), where he maintained that “there is nothing outside the text.” In order to understand what Derrida meant by that statement, consider the following: We know the world through language, and the acts and practices that constitute that “real world” (whether terrorist attacks, the decision to marry, or the latest fashion trend) are inseparable from the discourses (accepted ways of thinking, writing, and speaking) out of which they arise and as open to interpretation as any work of literature. We necessarily live, think, and act within a network of cultural discourses, within “the text.” Other theorists who have deconstructed the world / text opposition include Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, who claimed in Easy Pieces (1985) that “nothing can lift us out of language.”

Several important contributions to poststructuralist thought are also associated with other theoretical perspectives. Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalytic critic whose theories influenced both deconstructors and other poststructuralists, posited that the human unconscious is structured like a language and argued that the ego, subject, or self that we think of as being necessary and natural (our individual human nature) is really a fiction, a product of the social order and its various and often conflicting symbolic systems (especially, but not exclusively, language). Michel Foucault, a French philosophical historian influenced by Marxism and most often associated with the new historicism, studied cultures in terms of power relationships but refused to see power in terms of simple, binary oppositions, as something exercised by a dominant class over a subservient class. For example, in Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) (1975), he argued that power is a complex of interwoven and often contradictory forces; power produces what happens.

Roland Barthes, both a structuralist and a poststructuralist over the course of his career, was one of the first to strip the author of the unique role accorded by Western culture and traditional literary criticism. In “The Death of the Author” (1967), Barthes characterized the author not as an original and creative master and manipulator of the linguistic system but, rather, as one of its primary vehicles, an agent through which it works out new permutations and combinations.

In S/Z (1970), which marked Barthes’s turn from structuralism to poststructuralism, he argued that texts were either lisible (“readerly”) or scriptible (“writerly”). Lisible indicates a certain dependence on convention, which facilitates interpretation. Scriptible implies a significant degree of experimentation, a flouting or modification of traditional rules that makes a text difficult to interpret and, occasionally, virtually incomprehensible. Works by writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf tend to be scriptible and illisible (unreaderly).

Even as poststructuralists have radically reduced the author’s role, they have also diminished the role of the reader, whom they view not as a stable, coherent, and consistent subject or self but rather as the locus of competing and often contradictory discourses. They concern themselves with “reading” (lecture), rather than with the reader per se. Texts themselves may also be stripped of individuality, seen simply as part of writing-in-general (écriture). Some poststructuralist critics have gone so far as to reject the term text altogether, preferring discourse, which they broadly use to refer to any verbal structure, whether literary or not.

Poststructuralists have radically revised the traditional concept of theory even as they have elevated it to a position of prime importance. Theory, as poststructuralists conceive of it, is vastly different from theory as defined in more conventional literary criticism — i.e., as a general set of principles applicable to the analysis or classification of a literary work. From a poststructuralist perspective, theory has to account for more than literature, since everything from the unconscious to social and cultural practices is seen as functioning like a language. Thus, the goal of poststructuralist theorists is to understand what controls interpretation and meaning in all possible systems of signification. Not surprisingly, this far-ranging concept has facilitated the development of critical theories that challenge the very underpinnings of traditional Western thought, especially the logocentric assumption that meaning is ultimately determinable and determinate.

Poststructuralism serves as the overall paradigm for many of the most prominent contemporary critical perspectives. Approaches ranging from reader-response criticism to the new historicism assume the decentrist bias of poststructuralism. Many approaches also incorporate the poststructuralist position that texts lack clear and definite meanings, an argument pushed to the extreme by those poststructuralists identified with deconstruction. But unlike deconstructors, who argue that the process of signification itself produces irreconcilable contradictions, contemporary critics oriented toward other poststructuralist approaches (discourse analysis or Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, for instance) maintain that texts do have real, underlying meanings that poststructuralist readings can uncover. Nevertheless, of the various critical approaches associated with poststructuralism, deconstruction has had the greatest impact on the theory and practice of literary criticism, perhaps because of its emphasis on the text as rhetoric requiring both careful and playful close reading.